No concrete global warming proof in polar region
21 Jun 08 2008
Are the ices of the Arctic north about to melt away for good? Rami Abdelrahman gets the views of a range of Swedish researchers.
Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria is one of a number of Scandinavian royals making for the Arctic archipelago on the Swedish ice-breaker Oden this weekend to participate in an event to coincide with and promote International Polar Year.
But will there even be a need for such ice-breaking vessels in years to come? Many commentators would have us believe that glaciers and ocean ice are about to go the way of the dodo.
Upon their arrival at Svalbard in Norway, however, the royals are likely to be informed by Swedish polar researchers that there is in fact very little concrete proof tying global warming to climate changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Some indeed argue that there is more change in today’s political rhetoric than there is in the environment.
Last year Sweden invested more than 33 million kronor ($5 million) on research in the Arctic region, which covers almost one quarter of the nation’s landmass. Most of the Swedish funding, according to many researchers, goes mainly toward surveying the effects of climate change on glaciers and wildlife.
Professor Göran Ericsson from Umeå University will head a research delegation this summer to the Arctic north. His particular task is to study patterns of moose migration as they relate to climate change. Ericsson can literally “ring up a moose.”
“We have attached GPS trackers on more than 40 moose. Once you dial the code to the GPS tracker, you can find the exact location of the animal,” he says.
“Humans sweat when they get warm, but moose cannot do that. If the weather gets warmer they move towards colder places, often risking food shortages,” he tells The Local.
Ericsson says moose have always moved about in the sub-Arctic regions of the Swedish north. But what researchers are testing now is whether the animals are moving further north due to climate change. “Sometimes this proves right, and sometimes it proves wrong.”
Tomas Berg works with the Fjällräv (mountain fox) project, a venture aiming to preserve wildlife in the region. He too says it is difficult to ascertain what is really happening when it comes to climate change.
“We know that there is change, but we do not know in which direction. For example, the weather in the mountains might be warmer now, but in the long run it could get colder,” he says.
Cecilia Johansson from Uppsala University is equally unwilling to link milder weather in the Arctic with more general climate fluctuations. A lecturer in meteorology, Johansson flies to the Arctic region twice a year to study the effects of climate change on snow patterns.
“When it comes to weather and climate there are so many interrelated factors, triggering a chain of effects. For example, we had a warm winter in Sweden, but it was quite cold in the Mediterranean region. So we have to look at global warming from a global perspective.”
Every researcher seems to display a similar reticence when it comes to drawing far-reaching conclusions. Andrew Mercer studies the changes in glacier forms in the Arctic region at Stockholm University.
“It is quite a big picture -- we are talking about the whole planet. We have to compare many studies and often data is not available elsewhere in the same way it is here in Sweden,” he says, before adding that churches in Sweden have meteorological records dating back a few hundred years. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was one of the first Swedish scientists to study the effects of climate on wildlife.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, Swedish glaciers grew in size, which should indicate that we have had colder weather. But in fact there were other factors that contributed to their growth,” Mercer says.
However, climate has changed politics, especially in Sweden, as political parties include adaptation to climate change in their rhetoric and election campaigns. Mercer offers his view on the curious relationships between science and politics.
“What happened was that scientists sent out the results of their studies to politicians and the general public. Initially only the general public showed an interest. Politicians didn’t care. But once interest grew among the general public, the subject gradually made its way to the top of the politicians’ list of priorities,” he says.
The industrial sector also avoided the thorny issue of climate change for quite some time, thinking adaptation to a greener future a costly endeavour.
“However, scientists were able to prove that industry was damaging the climate. Scientists presented industries with possible scenarios and ways to adapt their products and mitigate climate change. With the growing interest in the general public, they began to see a new market with new opportunities.”
Mercer adds that industrialists are often on the same side as scientists, at least in Sweden.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch, though,” he says, explaining that it is cheaper for industries to avoid investing in new and green technologies, which are still in the development stage and remain expensive.
The discovery of oil has also added a new dimension to the geo-politics of the region. Investment has come pouring in from Europe, the US, Canada and Japan, as well as from Arab Gulf States, Latin America and China. According to National Geographic, 25 percent of all untapped global oil resources are to be found in the region.
But if oil reserves prove as plentiful as predicted, will there even be a need to drill through thick layers of ice in the future? The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, ACIA, anticipates the disappearance of all ocean ice in the period from 2060-2100 should global warming continue at the current rate. However, Swedish scientists are not convinced that today’s meteorological trends will stand the test of time.
Rami Abdelrahman (firstname.lastname@example.org)